Team Kalitta Double-up Highlights NHRA Season Starter

Shawn Langdon, Connie Kalitta, J.R. Todd celebrate Team Kalitta's first-ever double-up - Anne Proffit photo
Shawn Langdon, Connie Kalitta, J.R. Todd celebrate Team Kalitta’s first-ever double-up – Anne Proffit photo

NHRA began its 2024 season with the 55th annual Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals, held at Gainesville Raceway in the Florida city of the same name the weekend of March 8-10. It’s the second year in a row that the season has begun at this track and the action was heavy from start to finish.

Of course the weather played a large part in the proceedings, as it usually does at this track, with rain upsetting the second day of qualifying on Saturday and not allowing for Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s fourth and final qualifying session. Only Top Fuel would get in its four sessions on Friday and Saturday, together with the Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Callout, won by Antron Brown. Far cooler temps, under mostly sunny skies, showed which crew chiefs had the right tune-ups for the condition changes.

At the close of four rounds of eliminations, the winners celebrating in Top Fuel and Funny Car both came from Kalitta Motorsports, as team owner Connie Kalitta earned his first double-up result in his many years of competing at this high level. Team Kalitta has had 17 opportunities to earn a double victory over the years and did it Sunday in commanding fashion, with both J.R. Todd, the 2018 Funny Car champion and Shawn Langdon, who earned his Top Fuel title in 2013, bringing home the hardware. It was also a double-up for Toyota, starting off the season in the win column in both nitro categories.

Langdon, who hasn’t visited the Winner’s Circle since the pandemic-era U.S. Nationals in 2020, took over Top Fuel, showing the kind of speed and consistency that crew chief Brian Husen, who has been an assistant crew chief with Alan Johnson, for many years, are known for. Husen took on crew chief duties for Langdon this year and this was his first NHRA race at the helm. The dragster qualified No. 1 and defeated rookie Cody Krohn, always tough Justin Ashley, three-time champ Antron Brown and, finally, Billy Torrence to win his 17th  race. In nearly every round he looked confident, from Friday through Sunday.

Only Shawn Langdon won from the right lane – Anne Proffit photo

“Weekends like this just really make you appreciate the life you have. Being able to race for a legend like Connie Kalitta is something I don’t take lightly,” Langdon admitted, “and he gave me the keys to his race car. To come here, go to Scott’s Hall of Fame induction (Scott Kalitta, who died in 2008 was inducted to the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame on Thursday night) and then you take a step back and realize you’re just so lucky to be a part of this, really! Win, lose or draw, we’re very fortunate to be able to race for Team Kalitta and be a part of a great team. To be a part of the first double-up, you just kind of pinch yourself and say, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here, but it’s great, man.’”

Langdon gave full credit to Brian Husen. “This is my first Gatornationals win, and we’re doubled up, but I’m just so happy for Brian,” he added. “He puts in so much time and effort behind the scenes, and he deserves every ounce of credit and success he gets. I’m so thankful to be his driver and I feel like it’s a long, overdue opportunity for him, doing back to when we worked together years ago at the Al-Anabi team,” where Langdon, Johnson and Husen earned the dragster title together. “He’s learned from the best and for him to have an opportunity to come and qualify No. 1 with a really good race car and then win his first race is just a credit to Brian and this Kalitta Air Careers Toyota team.”

Funny Car winner J.R. Todd’s most recent victory came in Sonoma last July in his Toyota GR Supra, a far more recent win than Langdon’s. The No. 6 qualifier took out Blake Alexander in Jim Head’s Mustang, three-time champ Ron Capps’ Supra after that driver fouled by leaving early, and Bob Tasca III’s quick Mustang en route to a match-up with No. 1 qualifier Austin Prock, subbing for Robert Hight in the John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS. “You can’t take anybody lightly in Funny Car,” Todd admitted.

Todd bested No. 1 qualifier Austin Prock in the Funny Car finals – Anne Proffit photo

“We’ve been trying to double up for a long time,” Todd continued. “there were times when I was driving Shawn’s car that Del (Worsham, now crew chief for Alexis DeJoria) and I were in the finals together. Then I’d be in the final with Shawn or Doug (Kalitta), but for wherever reason it just never worked out. You’re definitely not rolling up to the starting line thinking about doubling up, but leading up to it, you know there’s an opportunity.

“The stars lined up for us here in Gainesville. Scott’s sons were here, Scott’s wife Kathy was here, and I think it was her first time at the race track since 2008 so it was pretty awesome.” With Scott Kalitta’s name emblazoned on the side of the bright yellow Supra, Todd knows he’s driving Kalitta’s car. “I’m just the lucky one who gets to drive Scott’s car and that’s forever his car. I’m just happy we were able to redeem ourselves and get the trophy for everyone that supports us,” Todd concluded.

In Pro Stock, six-time champion Erica Enders finally got her first Gatornationals victory with Elite Motorsports, leaving only two tracks where she’s not had a win: Richmond and Denver. She earned her 35th No. 1 on Saturday and her 49th career victory (48 in Pro Stock) on Sunday and set plenty of 6.49-second passes en route to this historic win, including her Saturday No. 1. Racing her Chevy Camaro in the final round against teammate Cristian Cuadra’s Mustang, she posted a solid 6.494-second pass any 211.93 mph against Cuadra’s tire-shaking run. “Two Elite Motorsports cars in the final round – that’s pretty awesome,” she said.

This weekend marked Erica Enders’ first Gatornationals No. 1 and victory – Anne Proffit photo

Enders had to go through three rounds against teammates, starting with Kelley Murphy, who works full-time as an Elite crew member and was making his driving debut, then Aaron Stanfiekd before facing familiar foe Greg Anderson’s Camaro from KB Titan Racing in the semifinals. Driving against Cuadra from the preferred left lane, Enders realized the right lane was tricky. “We’ve been chomping at the bit to get this done. I’ve been to three final rounds here and we finally got it done!” she exclaimed. “There’s certain tracks that have special trophies, and to get the Golden Gator and the 55th win, it’s awesome. It will sit proudly on our shelf and seeing a packed house at the Gators, it’s so special.”

Apparently, nobody in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class has anything – yet – for 2023 champion Gaige Herrera, who continued his class domination this weekend on the Vance and Hines Motorsports Suzuki Hayabusa3. Herrera, as he has since his first win here last year, dominated the two-wheeled class and his final round run of 6.636 at 204.39 against six-time champ Matt Smith, back riding a Buell, was the culmination of four 200-mph-plus drives down the quarter-mile on Sunday. Herrera led the class throughout the weekend and, in the second round of eliminations set a track record of 6.629 at 204.54 for the second-quickest run in class history, behind only his record-setting run at Dallas last year.

Herrera beat six-time champ Matt Smith in the final round – Anne Proffit photo

In earning his 12th win and sixth in a row, Herrera noted, “The weather was really close to Dallas’ (last year), where I set the national record. Everyone kind of picked up in the class and we expected to, as well. Overall, I had a very consistent motorcycle. We actually hurt the motor in the semifinals,” he admitted, “so we had to swap motors for the finals. Overall I had a very consistent, smooth motorcycle all day. As long as I didn’t miss a beat, the bike didn’t miss a beat. Even though I didn’t do any testing during the off-season,, it felt like I didn’t even have an off-season. I’m glad to come home with a win.”

The second of 21 races in the 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series takes place at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip, the acknowledged home for the series and the former season starter, March 21-24, with the 64th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals.

About Anne Proffit 1246 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

1 Comment on Team Kalitta Double-up Highlights NHRA Season Starter

  1. I have been a longtime NHRA fan and have attended forty five Gatornationals in a row. However I was very disappointed that they only showed an hour and a half of this year’s race on TV. I consider Gainesville to be the largest drag race. Gainesville was packed again this year. Just look at the grandstands compared to Indy. Brian and Tony do a great job of announcing but they don’t have enough time to keep us fully informed in this very shortened time. Why did NHRA do this? I’m afraid the rest of the races this year will be the same.

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